Painful and embarrassing as it would be, kindly telling a socially inept person exactly and specifically what they are doing to drive people away might just change their lives.
As the fallout continues to settle after Elliot Rodger’s Santa Barbara rampage, one aspect of the case stands out, an aspect that we have seen in common with many similar cases: Elliot Rodger was psychologically and socially isolated. He wasn’t part of the community, and he was hostile to it.
In some cases, the murderers will isolate themselves by choice, seeing the society they live in as somehow defective; take the Boston Bombers or the Unabomber as examples. But in Rodger’s case – at least, if one can believe his own videotaped explanations of his motives – he was unwillingly shut out, had no clue why, and after years of this, his rage at the unfairness of it all had hit the boiling point.
Consider: Elliot Rodger railed against his lack of social success while clearly failing to understand it. He was from an upper-class family, was nice-looking, world traveled, articulate, drove a BMW. This sounds like a description of a pretty good catch, but obviously there was a whole lot of something off-putting about him. He never had a girlfriend, didn’t get dates, didn’t seem to have any real friends, and not for lack of desire for it.
We all now know that he was diagnosed with Asperger’s, and one characteristic of Asperger’s (and of many high-IQ people) is an inborn lack of social skills. This is so pervasive that there is a recognized need to teach Asperger’s kids how to socially interact. But while Rodger had parental concern and regular therapy, it was not enough. Why?
Here’s my guess: it’s not enough to tell people how to socialize. It might be even more important to teach them the flip side of that coin, how not to go about it. Asperger’s people can unwittingly sabotage themselves in a myriad of ways, and I suspect that no one, not even his therapist, ever told Rodger bluntly, kindly and honestly exactly what was so off-putting to other people. Comments from an online community, where he was criticized as “desperate, insecure, pretentious, entitled, bitter and whiny,” may seem like pretty blunt information to the rest of us, but to someone with no social skills at all, those adjectives mean nothing; they don’t understand the specifics of what makes an action seem desperate, what makes a comment seem whiny, what make his behavior seem pretentious. Having read his autobiographical diatribe, “My Twisted World,” I could give him some specifics, starting with his liberal use of self-aggrandizing adjectives. He was pretty full of himself. But how much of that caused his isolation, and how much was a result of that isolation?
While it would be extremely tough to tell someone in painstaking detail exactly what is wrong with their behavior, that’s exactly what some kids (and adults) need. Check out how therapist Sarah Swenson had to tease apart her client’s difficulties in the workplace, pinpointed the problem, and then explained why he was creeping out his co-workers. Tough to hear? Probably. But the alternative is to leave these folks stewing in their own confusion about why no one likes them, why they can’t make friends, why they are the subjects of ridicule or scorn.
Elliot Rodger has been called a “monster” in the headlines. If true, he was at least partly a monster of human making. Elliot Rodger was dogged by social unhappiness from his childhood onward, with little relief. If someone had been able to coach him from an early age, to teach him how to interact and more importantly, how not to – would things have turned out differently? How much of his final choice was based on an arrogant personality, how much on mental illness, how much on something else entirely? Is a lifetime of feeling shunned and hurt, and nursing those feelings in isolation, enough to explain his actions?